Jesus was a satirist, or so claims Douglas Wilson, editor of the Christian magazine Credenda/Agenda (mission: “to revel in every cause for faithful laughter”) and author of the book A Serrated Edge: A Brief Defense of Biblical Satire and Trinitarian Skylarking. Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus again and again using humor to expose the ridiculousness of human vices and follies. These four books are full of jabs and insults, which we often miss because we have been taught to believe that Jesus was quiet, meek, and non-confrontational.
Satire has been around since ancient times, used as a tool to poke fun at society’s manners and morals, institutions, and individuals—but for the aim of reforming them. The idea is to get people to recognize their own ridiculousness and to avoid it in the future. To shame them into improvement. Famous satirists include Horace, Lucian, Juvenal, Chaucer, Erasmus, and Swift (think Gulliver’s Travels).
There are several different satiric techniques: parody, irony, invective, wit, caricature, hyperbole, and reductio ad absurdum. With the exception of parody, Jesus used them all at one time or another. His humor was sometimes soft or teasing, sometimes biting, sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle, but it was always perfect in its timing and profoundly effective in delivering a point.
In this video, Pastor Mark Driscoll points out, with visuals, three of Jesus’s jokes that would have been particularly funny to ancient Hebrews:
- He nicknamed Simon “Rocky”—the weak, unstable, emotional little pebble of a guy, who rebuked Christ and later denied him three times to a teenage girl. It’s like calling a fat guy “Slim.” It’s ironic, and it was meant to gently tease Peter. Later on in that same chapter, Jesus calls Peter “Satan.”
- “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3-4). The mental picture Jesus intended to evoke here is quite silly: a man with a monstrous block of wood protruding from his eye (and oblivious to it), railing on another person for sporting in his eye a hugely conspicuous . . . speck of sawdust. This is one of Jesus’s many jabs at the hypocritical moralists of his day.
- Jesus said that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Biblical commentators are confused by this statement, and rather than take it as a joke and a hyperbole, they try to rationalize it by suggesting that there was a section in the Wall of Jerusalem with a tiny little door that camels could shimmy through. No! The joke is that a camel fitting through the eye of a needle is a physical impossibility. And as hard as it is to squeeze 1500 pounds of camel through a millimeter-wide opening, it’s even harder for rich people to let go of their wealth and cling instead to Jesus as their All.
These three examples demonstrate the milder side of Jesus’s humor. Other times, it was much more pointed and scathing. As Wilson says, “there are times when it is necessary to set aside the surgeon’s scalpel and pick up a Louisville Slugger” (15).
For example, check out Jesus’s invective against the Pharisees in Matthew 23, sometimes referred to as “The Chapter of the Seven Woes.” It’s an absolutely brutal lampoon of their self-righteousness and hypocrisy, a pair of sins which Jesus condemned more than any other, because he hates religiosity that misses the point. In this chapter, Jesus makes fun of the way the Pharisees eat, pray, fast, tithe, and make oaths. He makes fun of their flashy phylacteries and extra-long prayer tassels. “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel,” Jesus said, referring to the Pharisaic practice of carefully straining their drinking water through a cloth to be sure they wouldn’t swallow even the smallest of ceremonially unclean animals. In other words, in keeping the letter of the law and not its spirit, the Pharisees were letting in massive impurities. For example: They would pay Judas money to betray the Messiah, but then when Judas returned the money, they had profound scruples about which account to put it in (Matthew 27:1-7)! They couldn’t put blood money into the temple coffers, because that would be a sin. And down slides that camel—hooves, knees, humps, and all—into their stupid stomachs.
Jesus criticizes the Pharisees’ obsession with trivialities, which distracts them seeing the big picture. “You carefully weigh out an ounce of mint here, an ounce of dill there,” he says, “but you neglect the far weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (v. 23). Bam! Put that on your kitchen scale and weigh it!
Well, one thing’s for sure: Jesus called it like he saw it, and he wasn’t afraid to offend. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Christians shrink away from opportunities to speak the truth, all because “I don’t want to offend them.” What they fail to realize is that the gospel is supposed to offend. It has to if it’s going to cause repentance. The gospel teaches that men are helplessly depraved, and that the end of such depravity is eternal death. Of course that’s going to cause anger, defensiveness, and at the very least discomfort. People are afraid to look inside themselves, so they’ll resist those who challenge them to do so. In Matthew 15:10-14, the disciples worry about the adverse effect Jesus’ biting rhetoric might have on others. “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended by what you said?” they ask him. But Jesus doesn’t apologize. Instead, he assures them that he meant to offend the Pharisees; he wanted to uproot them from their sense of security in their own goodness.
How do we reconcile this picture of Jesus with the picture of him as kind and accepting? How can we reconcile his gentleness with his fieriness, his love with his anger?
One thing to keep in mind is that genuine love hates that which destroys its object. If you love your wife, you hate the cancer that kills her. If you love your dad, you hate the stroke that immobilizes him. If you love your son, you hate the addiction that traps him. Because Jesus loves people, he hates the sin that enslaves, weakens, and destroys them. And because he loves his Father, he hates everything that opposes him, that runs contrary to his nature. Psalm 97:10 says, “Let those who love the LORD hate evil.” (See also Amos 5:15 and Romans 12:9.) A love that hates is not a contradiction in terms; rather, it is proof of that love’s genuineness.
Love is defined by God, and not by Hallmark cards. . . . Love that refuses to defend that which is loved is not biblical love at all. . . . Love that shuns a fight is an oxymoron. (Wilson, 114-115)
Jesus seems a bit harsh when he openly ridicules the sins of the Pharisees, but he’s doing so to expose and discredit them. His passionate words show how much he loves life and righteousness, that he would defend them so vehemently. He wants the Pharisees to see how disgusting and deadly their sin is and to repent so that they can be free at last from the condemnation of the law.
So if we’re supposed to imitate Jesus, where does that leave us? Do we have the same duty and authority as Jesus to hurl insults and poke fun in God’s name? Wilson’s answer is a resounding “Yes!”
. . . our Lord Jesus . . . exhibit[s] a vast array of verbal behavior, including tenderness, love, insults, jokes, anger, and more. What standard do we use to sort this material out? . . . What standard are we using to say that we should imitate this part of Christ’s demeanor and refuse to imitate that part of it? What standard do we use to assemble this hierarchy of verbal values? Why do we say, “Imitate Christ in His kindness to the tax gatherers, but never imitate Him in His treatment of the religiously pompous”? (19, 90-91)
Christians, he says, dull the sharpness of God’s Word when they relay it in such a meek and mild manner:
Simply presenting the truth of God in a computer printout fashion, without the passion, life, satire, love, and emotion found in Scripture, is a way of being unfaithful to this content. . . . We are like soldiers who blunt their swords before they go into battle, believing that this is all right if we ensure that the swords still weigh what they used to. The content is still there. (98)
He warns Christians to take caution, though. We are not to use satire as an ungodly bludgeoning tool, but as an instrument that leads others to repentance and to a fuller awareness and experience of God’s grace. The goal is restoration to Christ and his church. Wilson says that sharp rebukes should rarely be used as a first resort, but should follow only after the rejection of a soft word of reproach, or when dealing with hard-hearted obstinacy displayed over an extended period of time (105).
It seems that Wilson has a supporter in Mark Driscoll, who is often criticized for his (what some consider) inappropriate humor. In his book Religion Saves: And Nine Other Misconceptions, Driscoll defends himself by quoting 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” “That good work includes knowing when to laugh and when to make fun of others for a prophetic purpose that is deadly serious,” he writes (49).
Wilson provides some solid refutations of common objections in Chapter 9 of A Serrated Edge (available in full, for free, at Google Books): Isn’t satire unloving? Aren’t the satirist’s motives oftentimes in the wrong place (i.e., to show off, to impress with wit, to win a verbal spar)? What about the verses that tell us to speak the truth gently and to avoid foolish arguments? Is satire really the most productive tactic to use when sharing the gospel with others? I encourage you to read through these points and think about where you stand on them.
I’m not sure I agree with Wilson’s stance. Do we really possess the same prerogative as Jesus in this respect? After all, we’re sinners speaking to sinners, not the Son of God speaking to sinners. Jesus had the power to forgive sins; we do not, at least not in a justificatory sense. Jesus could discern motives; we cannot, at least not perfectly. I just can’t bring myself to make fun of religious people in such a direct and public way, because I feel that that would just be playing into Jesus’ plank-speck joke. I’m not above laughing at the ridiculousness of today’s Pharisees (whom I encounter all the time in YouTube videos, news broadcasts, interview transcripts, public squares, etc.), but I do so with trepidation, because I am not without fault. And sometimes, I’d just as soon cry as laugh, because it’s so sad to see what Christianity in America looks like today—at least the version that gets publicized.
I’m not questioning whether we should confront the sins of Christians; the Bible makes it clear that we should (Prov. 27:5; Matt. 18:15-17; Gal. 6:1; 2 Tim. 2:24-25; 2 Tim. 4:2; Titus 2:15; James 5:19-20). I’m questioning the manner in which we should confront them. Most of the aforementioned verses contain qualifiers like “gentleness,” “kindness,” “patience,” and “humility.” It seems that satire can get in the way of those virtues.
What are your thoughts?